In order to maintain visual sensitivity at all light levels, the vertebrate eye possesses a mechanism to regenerate the visual pigment chromophore 11-cis retinal in the dark enzymatically, unlike in all other taxa, which rely on photoisomerization. This mechanism is termed the visual cycle and is localized to the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), a support layer of the neural retina. Speculation has long revolved around whether more primitive chordates, such as tunicates and cephalochordates, anticipated this feature. The two key enzymes of the visual cycle are RPE65, the visual cycle all-trans retinyl ester isomerohydrolase, and lecithin:retinol acyltransferase (LRAT), which generates RPE65's substrate. We hypothesized that the origin of the vertebrate visual cycle is directly connected to an ancestral carotenoid oxygenase acquiring a new retinyl ester isomerohydrolase function. Our phylogenetic analyses of the RPE65/BCMO and N1pC/P60 (LRAT) superfamilies show that neither RPE65 nor LRAT orthologs occur in tunicates (Ciona) or cephalochordates (Branchiostoma), but occur in Petromyzon marinus (Sea Lamprey), a jawless vertebrate. The closest homologs to RPE65 in Ciona and Branchiostoma lacked predicted functionally diverged residues found in all authentic RPE65s, but lamprey RPE65 contained all of them. We cloned RPE65 and LRATb cDNAs from lamprey RPE and demonstrated appropriate enzymatic activities. We show that Ciona ß-carotene monooxygenase a (BCMOa) (previously annotated as an RPE65) has carotenoid oxygenase cleavage activity but not RPE65 activity. We verified the presence of RPE65 in lamprey RPE by immunofluorescence microscopy, immunoblot and mass spectrometry. On the basis of these data we conclude that the crucial transition from the typical carotenoid double bond cleavage functionality (BCMO) to the isomerohydrolase functionality (RPE65), coupled with the origin of LRAT, occurred subsequent to divergence of the more primitive chordates (tunicates, etc.) in the last common ancestor of the jawless and jawed vertebrates.
Poliakov, E., Gubin, A. N., Stearn, O., Li, Y., Campos, M. M., Gentleman, S., … Redmond, T. M. (2012). Origin and Evolution of Retinoid Isomerization Machinery in Vertebrate Visual Cycle: Hint from Jawless Vertebrates. PLoS ONE, 7(11). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0049975